Trump's Message to the Middle East Couldn't Be More Different from Obama's

President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University. Flickr/Obama White House

Trump’s promise that America would mind its own business stood in marked contrast to Obama’s outstretched hand.

The “good and evil” phrasing harked back to George W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. For Trump the matter was fairly black and white. It wasn’t as specific as Bush’s “either you’re with us or you are with the terrorists” formulation, but it also wasn’t shrouded in the gray shades of Obama’s moral relativism. It is also marks a key difference in the ideological chasm between the political Right and Left. At its most basic level, for example, the Right tends to seek the defeat of evil, whereas the Left seeks justice.

Naming Elephants Inside and Outside the Room

Interestingly, President Trump avoided using the phrase “radical Islamist terrorism,” which he chastised Democrats for avoiding. He did use the word “terrorism” and a host of its variants, which Obama couldn’t stomach in his own speech—an avoidable hypersensitivity, given that Arab and Muslim leaders also describe ISIS and Al Qaeda as “terrorists.”

In a sense, it was a missed opportunity for Trump to make the clear distinction that Obama couldn’t, because it is the use of radical interpretations of Islam that justifies terrorism as a tactic. Furthermore, America went to war with the ideology of Nazism and had a Cold War against Communism, not against gas chambers and bullets. Muslim leaders are attuned to the difference between those using Islam to justify terrorism and those who use it to promote peace, and so should be America’s leaders.

It is understandable that some critical language was best left unspoken, at least in public. After all, surely it is in poor taste to slip mud in the host’s punchbowl if staying for refreshments after such a lavish welcome. But it would have been nice to find a way to express appreciation without being so effusive. For example, despite the warmth displayed by the Saudi host, King Salman, his staggering “tens of millions of dollars in bank transfers” in the 1990s towards “financing militants’ activities in Pakistan and Bosnia” are public knowledge. From that well in Pakistan, exported by the man who is today king in Saudi Arabia, sprang Al Qaeda and the Taliban—the core of the problem Trump’s speech was meant to address.

In an about-face from the Obama years, Trump repeatedly singled out Iran: “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror.” While that is all true, the same could be said for his hosts and the Sunni Salafi and Wahhabi extremists they’ve spawned.

Perhaps it would have been a little too on the nose to have said, “The fact is that I realize Iran is a greater long-term threat given their pursuit of nuclear weapons, superior control over their terrorist proxies, and better ability to organize and project power. Should Sunni leaders learn to organize better and come to the cusp of having nuclear weapons, they will be a greater threat.” Trump’s reversal nevertheless signified an end to Obama’s embrace of Iran, and was welcomed by Sunni states.

President Trump also missed an important opportunity on the Arab-Israeli issue. The centerpiece of his approach to peace appears to be building support for the process from the outside in, which would presumably make Palestinian and Israeli concessions easier to stomach. He could have used the opportunity to publicly ask the gathered leaders to contribute toward that end. He could have pressed them to normalize ties or extend themselves in partnership with Israel, rather than keeping those contacts under the table. He also could have pointed out that Arab leaders have too long used Israel to justify an array of self-defeating policies, and to distract their own populations.

President Obama addressed this last inconsistency in his 2009 speech, but then went on to justify Israel’s existence as a direct result of the Holocaust—a cynical screed that ignores history generally and all of Jewish history specifically. In fact, it was on the topic of Palestinian-Israeli peace where Obama’s manufacturing of false moral equivalences was most damaging. On balance, if in the end what Trump forgot to say about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is remembered most, then Israelis will likely toast to presidential amnesia.

Principled Realism

Trump felt the urgent need to turn the page in the Middle East, just as Obama did eight years earlier. The key feature absent from President Trump’s new approach is the promotion of American values abroad. Otherwise, to put it in Star Trek terms, the new policy appears to boldly go where we’ve mostly gone before.

Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech was marketed as “A New Beginning,” and emphasized mutual respect as the path to partnering with the United States. In 2017, Trump, for his part, focused on mutual interests as the key ingredient. Trump also gave that approach a name: “Principled Realism.”

From this standpoint in history, it is easy to connect the dots between Obama’s 2009 vision in Cairo and the policies he pursued for two terms in office. Presumably historians will be able to look back on President Trump’s speech and see how he translated those words into policies and actions, strategies and tactics, or how he breathed life into his doctrine of “Principled Realism.”